Women and the myth of work-life balance

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed a few days ago when I was accosted by this incredibly click-baity article headline on Business Insider: “China’s most successful businesswoman has not taken a day off in 27 years”. Although Business Insider is a bit prone to these types of articles, I nevertheless took the bait and clicked on it. What I discovered about the woman in question, Dong Mingzhu, was astounding. At 61, she is China’s most successful businesswoman and the leader of the $22 billion (£17.8 billion) air-conditioning giant Gree. Her company makes $12 billion a year in revenue. It is also the largest air-conditioning manufacturer in the world, its stock value having grown by 2,300% under her 26 year leadership.
But what was most shocking is this: she also allegedly has not taken a single day of paid holiday leave in a 27-year tenure at the company, according to Quartz. She refuses to apologise for her focus — her 2006 autobiography was literally titled “Regretless Pursuit” — but it has come at a personal cost. She began work at the company as a widow after her husband died in 1984 and she left her infant son to be raised by his grandmother. One story goes that she once sent her 12-year-old son to the airport alone by bus because she was busy at work.
Stunning and inspiring? Yes. A bit terrifying? Yes, that too.
I guess her story struck me because it gets at a question that I myself am not sure I can answer: when it comes to work-life balance, can ambitious women have it all? As far as successful women I’ve admired seem to admit, the answer is a resounding no.
PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi , a woman who I admire for her straightforwardness, admitted how hard it is to get that elusive combination of work-life balance just right. “I don’t think women can have it all. I just don’t think so. We pretend we have it all. We pretend we can have it all,” she said to Atlantic Media Company’s David Bradley at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Realistically, we may not be able to have it all, but I think it begs fair question — why are we expected to ever have it all? Where did these expectations, self-imposed or otherwise, even come from?
I think the heart of the issue is that women struggle with what they think is expected of them. Women strive to be super wives, super moms, and super career women. All the while, they stress about gaining weight, getting older, and staying competitive in the workforce when they hit perceived career snags like pregnancy and maternity leave (the horror!). The combined weight of all these tasks is daunting, and yet, somehow miraculously achieving all of them, (“work-life balance”) has been unfairly sold to women as the sole means of being happy and successful. Achieving this so-called work-life balance isn’t just hard — it’s almost impossible. And it’s a ridiculous expectation to have of oneself.
Not to mention, there’s always the lurking warning that there’s a price to be paid for female ambition. When women strive to achieve success, they are often reminded that the price of working (or studying) late is somehow hurting someone else. It might be at the expense of their spouses, children, and friends, and even their own personal expense (Why pursue a career at all when you might be missing a chance to raise your children through their formative years?). I imagine Dong Mingzhu, Indra Nooyi, and women like them probably faced much of the same scrutiny when they made the choices they did for their careers. It’s also a mostly one-sided scrutiny (after all, when was the last time a male executive was asked if he felt bad about working late hours or missing his kid’s childhoods?). More importantly, it’s a vastly outdated concern to have in a society where men and women are slowly reaching equal personal and economic footings, and where women are not just opting to be, but indeed HAVE to be, household breadwinners. In short, work-life balance is nice in theory, but falls flat in execution for most modern women — and that’s 100% OK.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not endorsing what Dong Mingzhu did, of never taking a day off in your life. Taking care of yourself and finding time, however sparse, for friends, family, and the like is incredibly important. But at the same time, I admire her brazenness in refusing to apologize for the choices she’s made. And what I took away from her experiences as well as Indra Nooyi’s is that it’s OK not to have your life 100% in balance all the time. You’re not doing something wrong if you choose to prioritize some things over others. You don’t have to apologize for your ambition, or putting your studies or your career over the other parts of your life. Balance, in all honesty, is mostly elusive. Contentment with your work, and yourself, doesn’t have to be. Getting rid of unrealistic expectations of “balance” and accepting your version of balance, whatever it may be, is the first step to getting there.

About the Author

Namankita Rana
Passionate about technology, women's issues, art, fashion, and global politics. Though maybe not in that exact order.